Let’s Make New York City A True Sanctuary City


In 1985 in Arizona, a Presbyterian minister learned that a group of refugees fleeing death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador was in need of safe passage across the US border. More concerned about their lives than the law or the political leanings of his neighbors, he helped them over the border and into his church basement, assuring them he would refuse to turn them over to the authorities. In doing so, according to the New York Times, he unwittingly spawned the use of a term that has recently come back into fashion: “sanctuary.”

While the anti-immigrant crowd is busy enacting travel bans on Muslims, telling Spanish-speakers to “go home” even if home is here, threatening to withhold federal funding for noncompliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and cheering on agents as they lurk outside schools, courthouses, hospitals, and other government buildings for families to disband and livelihoods to disrupt, officials in cities in California, Massachusetts, and New York have responded by defiantly proclaiming themselves “sanctuary cities,” promising protection to immigrants and their families.

In New York, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have in recent months detained a 39-year-old man in Manhattan Criminal Court, three people waiting outside Queens Criminal Court, a 19-year-old Ossining student on the night of his senior prom, and scores of others in both city and countywide sweeps. In response, local officials have beefed up funding for immigrant legal services, instructed school officials to turn away agents without warrants, and advised local police to no longer grant voluntary detainer requests. On the state side, the New York Assembly has passed or introduced legislation barring cooperation with ICE (The Liberty Act), granting pathways to citizenship (The DREAM Act), and allowing undocumented drivers to obtain licenses (A4050)—though some Senate leaders have fiercely opposed these bills and others like them.

While these are important efforts, and they should be lauded, the truth is that they don’t go nearly far enough. With this in mind, here are three steps city and state leaders in New York and beyond can take right now to become true sanctuaries for their undocumented residents:

1. Preemptively issue trespass warnings to all ICE and DHS agents and employees:

For decades in just about every city in America, police, prosecutors, judges, and an array of staff at different municipal agencies have used written and verbal trespass warnings to keep people they deem “problematic” or “undesirable” away from parks, schools, public housing developments, busses and subways, and they have done it under threat of arrest and prosecution. Today, however, when these same city leaders in “progressive” enclaves such as Boston and New York promise undocumented residents protection, they seem to keep forgetting that this powerful legal tool is at their disposal. It’s time we remind them.

Elected officials with the appropriate jurisdiction should immediately begin ordering the posting of signs such as the following in prominent positions on all courthouses, schools, hospitals, parks, pools, ice rinks, busses, subways, bus and subway stations and terminals, and all other buildings or facilities where essential local government services are offered:

“Any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employee or agent conducting immigration investigation work on these premises without a valid warrant signed by a judge in her or his bodily possession is trespassing pursuant to NYS Penal Law 140.05 and, if in possession of a firearm, NYS Penal Law 140.17.”

This is an important first step that elected officials can take to demonstrate to immigrants and their families that they are serious about using all legal means necessary to provide the largest amount of physical and geographical protection possible. It’s also something that homeowners, landlords, and business owners can do, because private property owners have the authority to post written trespass warnings prominently on their own premises. The message to federal immigration agents in any city claiming to be a sanctuary city must be crystal clear: if you are trying to detain and deport our friends, neighbors, and loved ones, you’re not welcome here. Go and get a warrant, Redcoat, or kick rocks.

2. End Broken Windows, and criminal and civil enforcement of petty infractions:

Broken Windows, marijuana arrests, turnstile-jumping (known officially as theft of services), and other so-called “quality of life” arrests have been responsible for funneling thousands of immigrants at risk of detention and deportation into searchable criminal record and fingerprint databases that contain court dates, places of abode, employment details, and other highly sensitive identifying information.

In February, after ICE conducted a citywide immigration raid that landed 40 people in custody, Karina Garcia, an organizer with the ANSWER coalition, told the Village Voice: “We cannot claim to be a sanctuary city when police flood immigrant communities with cops who are racking up summonses and arrests in huge numbers.”

Ms. Garcia is dead-on. If elected officials in New York and other cities want to be taken seriously when they invoke the word sanctuary and offer protection to immigrants, they cannot continue to support dragnet police practices that substantially heighten the daily risk of detention and deportation. The city has proposed back-end measures to reduce the number of days of certain sentences to avoid triggering immigration consequences, but this is not nearly enough. A true sanctuary city cannot—and would not—allow its police department to continue indiscriminately funneling immigrants into a system that places them in imminent danger of the very thing they’re supposed to be protecting them from.

3. Repurpose the NYPD Gang Division as the Immigrant Protection Division:

According to a 2015 report by Babe Howell, criminal law professor at the City University of New York, the NYPD’s Gang Division has quadrupled its ranks in recent years despite violent crime being at its lowest level in decades. This deployment has occurred in the face of a massive body of criminological data showing that a public health approach to gang violence is far more effective at preventing shootings than law enforcement operations, and that it achieves better results at a fraction of the cost.

In 2016, for example, five employees at an organization called 696 Queensbridge cut shootings down to zero in 96 public housing buildings in Queens for more than a year. If the City of New York wants to protect its 3.7 million-plus immigrants who largely live in the same areas being targeted by the NYPD’s gang raids—neighborhoods like Harlem, East Flatbush, Queensbridge, and parts of the Bronx, to name a few—then the city should fund and scale programs like 696 Queensbridge with the same power of mandate as police.

Properly funding and scaling such programs would allow the city to safely and more effectively prevent gun violence while reducing the burden on gang division officers to solve entrenched societal problems that law enforcement is unequipped to address by nature of its job description. A data-driven allocation of public safety resources would free up legions of patrol officers for more strategic real-time deployment. This would allow them to respond to calls of ICE and DHS agents violating trespass warnings, to confirm whether or not they have the requisite legal paperwork to be on the premises, and to escort them off if not. It would also allow patrol officers to respond to calls of agents in the area, so that they could escort those at risk of deportation into court when they need to report crimes or obtain protective orders, visit city hospitals, and safely drop their kids off at school (just imagine the amount of community trust such efforts might restore in the NYPD).

Perhaps more importantly, scaling successful public health intervention models like 696 Queensbridge to all of New York’s gun violence hotspots would all but eliminate gang-related gun homicides and nonfatal shootings citywide. This would free up detectives to clear an alarming and growing backlog of unsolved anti-immigrant, anti-Black, and anti-Semitic hate crimes that have spiked by as much as 100% in New York since November. And lastly, such a move would give detectives more time and resources to infiltrate and detain white supremacist terrorists before they can kill, as in the case of the 28-year-old Baltimore man who killed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman in Hells Kitchen in March.

New York City and New York State have implemented some important measures to protect immigrants, but there is still a long way to go. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz recently said the presence of ICE agents “severely disrupts and obstructs justice”. Not only is she right, but her argument also extends by way of logic to all essential city services—honestly, can there be anything more disruptive to students learning, victims going to court, patients seeking medical care, commuters navigating crowded bus and subway platforms, etc., than the specter of federal agents lurking around every corner trying to snatch people out of crowds without warrants?

So, let’s get serious, New York. Let’s show our undocumented friends, relatives, coworkers, neighbors, and other loved ones that when we say we’re going to do everything in our power legally to protect them, we mean it. We can start today, by demanding that our elected officials implement these three simple steps forthwith.



696 Queensbridge



ANSWER coalition



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About Author

Roberto Paul is a lawyer and writer living in Brooklyn.

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